Live Music Slowly Returns as Venues Reopen as Restaurants – if They Can Afford It

Dinner and a show: Socially distanced concertgoers watch Jon Stork perform at Lava Cantina Saturday August 15.
Dinner and a show: Socially distanced concertgoers watch Jon Stork perform at Lava Cantina Saturday August 15. courtesy Lava Cantina
Most live music venues remain shuttered nearly six months after pandemic closures. The nightlife industry as a whole has been hit hard, and many North Texas music venues face an uncertain future — that is, unless they have a kitchen.

Billy Bob’s Texas, the "world’s largest honky-tonk" that now identifies as a restaurant, opened its doors for the first time since March to around 2,000 guests last weekend. The Fort Worth venue already had a kitchen setup, and once they factored in ticket and food sales, were able to convince the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) that less than 51% of their gross receipts came from alcohol, a stipulation set by Gov. Abbott's June 26 executive order to close Texas bars.

The 127,000-square-foot venue normally has a maximum occupancy of 6,000 people, but for now, they’re limiting admissions to 1,200. National country touring act The Bellamy Brothers brought in 800 people Friday night for their first concert since the onset of COVID-19, and local country-folk band Flatland Cavalry sold out their show on Saturday, general manager Marty Travis says.

“It really was a pleasurable weekend,” Travis says. “It could have been a real trainwreck. We were scared and nervous about what we were doing and trying to make sure we're doing it right and safe.”

Travis feels that Billy Bob’s managed the crowd safely and that guests, for the most part, were courteous and followed social distancing rules. He says temperatures were checked at the door, guests sat at tables spaced 6 feet apart, and masks were worn. The handful of people who refused to comply were asked to leave.

“98% of people we dealt with were real respectful,” Travis said.

Ian Vaughn, who owns Lava Cantina in The Colony, also fought with TABC officials to be recognized as a restaurant. The venue always served food, but before factoring in ticket sales, exceeded the 51% limit for alcohol sales. Vaugh reached out to state representatives and ran $1,500-worth of radio ads to contest closures. He eventually filed an affidavit in July that allowed him to reopen his doors.

He’s since seen high demand from musicians looking for a place to play. So much so that Lava Cantina hosts concerts and movies twice a day, up to six days a week. They’re drawing local acts like David Bowie tribute band Thin White Dukes and national ones like Nelly. This Saturday, $400 scores you a table for four to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the rapper's album Country Grammar (as if six months of quarantine didn’t already make you feel old).

“It's a pretty intense schedule to keep up, but there are a lot of bands that have never played for us before COVID that are getting an opportunity now because we have so many slots to fill,” Vaughn says. “It's given us a great opportunity to meet a lot of new people in the process.”

Space at Lava Cantina is limited to 250 guests compared with their normal 1,800 capacity, but the concerts are also livestreamed to paying viewers at home for additional revenue. Similar to Billy Bob’s, guests are required to sit at tables spaced 6 feet apart, wear masks while not seated and order food through the restaurant’s app. Purchasing food is optional, and there are no requirements that say you must order food with alcohol. State orders currently allow Vaughn to operate at 50% capacity, but he says the venue can’t safely seat that many people.

“For me, that would be 900 people,” he says. “That's a lot.”

Vaughn says most of his guests are happy to get a chance to socialize and hear live music again in a socially distanced setting. Still, he hears occasional complaints ranging from anti-maskers claiming that COVID-19 is a hoax to people accusing him of “putting everybody's life in danger by allowing them to sit and watch music.”

"Tell me how small businesses can afford to put in a $30,000 kitchen when they have been closed for five months yet still paying bills and overhead.” – DoubleWide owner Kim Finch, in a Facebook post

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But the bar-to-restaurant workaround isn’t feasible for the majority of music venues. Building a kitchen and investing in supplies to operate as a restaurant isn’t a realistic solution for many business owners. A study conducted earlier this summer by the National Independent Venue Association found that 90% of independent music venues nationwide are in jeopardy of closing permanently.

Billy Bob’s and Lava Cantina have both made considerable investments to reopen. Travis says the honky-tonk spent $20,000 on a thermal camera to screen guests' temperatures, and Vaughn is renting over $1 million worth of livestreaming equipment. Costs like these just aren’t an option for smaller venues, so they’re looking for government assistance through initiatives like the Save Our Stages Act.

Kim Finch, owner of the Doublewide and Singlewide, took to Facebook last week to talk about the trouble live music bars like hers face.

“Now bars are given the option to spend more money to change our permit so you can serve food,” she wrote in the post. “My two bars do not have kitchens, it costs $15,000 just for a grease trap in a kitchen. Tell me how small businesses can afford to put in a $30,000 kitchen when they have been closed for five months yet still paying bills and overhead.”

Beyond financial limitations, some venues feel that reopening right now isn’t the responsible thing to do. Chad Withers, general manager of Rubber Gloves in Denton, sees large, indoor crowds as too risky.

“Even if we had the capacity to, we wouldn't because it doesn't seem fair to do things like that,” Withers said. “It goes against the whole spirit of how we’re all supposed to be banding together to stop this. By taking those actions, it just makes [closures] last even longer for places like us.”

Vaughn agrees that venues need additional government assistance to survive shutdowns or the music industry as a whole will suffer. The impact of closures extends beyond just the venue itself — sound engineers, musicians and event staff are all out of work, too.

“I would just ask everybody to continuously lean on your local and state representatives, elected officials, to do the right thing here and at least give businesses the opportunity to operate safely,” Withers says.
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